Project Management

When and how to turn down a project

It's possible to turn away business without leaving a bad impression. Here are some skillful ways to do it.

There comes a time in every independent contractor’s professional life to turn down a potential client. In fact, once you’re established, one of the great things about working for yourself is that you don’t have to take on every project that someone wants to throw at you.

However, no matter the reason you decide to turn down work, you need to do so in a way that doesn’t make you look bad and leaves the client with a good impression of you and your business. Let’s take a look at the reasons you might want to turn down a project and skillful ways to do it.

When to say no
When you’re an employee, you generally do whatever task your manager hands off, and the task may or may not fall within the limits of your job description. But when you’re the boss, you can write your own job description and take on only the tasks you want. Here are just a few good reasons to turn down a project:
  • The client wants to pay you so little it’s insulting. Of course, be open to lowering your standard rates if the project might pay off in other ways, such as new skills or a long-term contract. But keep to your standards. Besides, taking on low-paying work can cause you to miss out on a much better opportunity.
  • You have too much work already. Watch out for this one—it can be so tempting to take on extra work anyway. Assess your situation carefully. You won’t further your career or impress the client by turning in substandard work past the deadline.
  • It’s work you just don’t want to do. Remember, you’re the boss now.
  • You’ve heard that this client pays late, has Jekyll-and-Hyde managers, and demands a million revisions. (Run! Now!)

It’s okay to be picky
If you’re like me, you’ll do some hand-wringing about turning down a project. There’s the fear factor—you’re afraid that if things slow down, you’ll wish you took the project on after all, or perhaps you’re afraid the client will form a negative impression of you. Well, if your business does slow down, you can always inquire whether the client needs your help with another project. Or, you can use the downtime to find the client you really do want to work for. You could also use the time to sharpen your skill set so you can expand the type of clients you attract. You could even give yourself some time off.

The first few years you’re in business for yourself, you’ll probably have a constant, nagging fear that you won’t make it. This fear can drive you to take on drudge work for clients who make Cinderella’s stepmother look good. Don’t let it!

One of the best reasons to work for yourself is so you can enjoy your work and deal with reasonable people. If you maintain both your perspective and a healthy, accessible savings account, you’ll have the security to say no.

Saying no: “It’s not you, it’s me”
When you need to turn down a project, you’re dealing with one of two types of clients:
  • Clients you’d like to work with later or on a different project
  • Clients you wouldn’t work with if they offered you the last contract on earth

No matter which type of client you have on your hands, treat them both the same. One of your important skills should be the ability to say no tactfully. Do it in a way that doesn’t make you look bad (you never know who knows whom) and leaves you in a position to accept work from that client later, if you want. Plus, you don’t know when one type of client will turn into the other—that evil manager might be replaced by one of your best friends.

So, you need a line. Here are two standards that will get you out of any client’s offices and keep you looking like a pro:
  • “I believe I could take on this particular project for you, but it’s really outside my specialty right now. If you have future projects that I would be more suited to help you with, it’d be great to talk with you again.”
  • “This looks like a wonderful project, but I’m booked for (choose the option most suitable for that client: two weeks, six months, the foreseeable future, a really long time). If you need some help at that time with this or another project, please get in touch with me.”

Almost every client will respect the fact that you won’t overbook yourself and that you won’t take on a project unless you believe you could do an outstanding job. If you really do want to work for that client—just not right now—contact the client a bit before you are available to inquire whether they still need you. Or, try to set up a contract that either allows you to ramp up gradually or that has a start date in the future.

Look at it as a chance to do favors for your network
Whatever the reason you turn down a project, one of the best things you can do at this point is to refer the client to someone in your line of work who you know does a good job. This not only leaves clients with a good impression of you and a chance to get their project completed, it also helps out the folks in your network.

As soon as you leave the client’s offices, contact the people you referred so they know you’ve given the client their name. You can also give them a head start by passing on a few details about the project. Even if the client doesn’t contact those people, they’ll know you referred them and will be more likely to do the same for you in the future.

And then there’s the highway robbery method…
There’s another approach that I haven’t mentioned because, honestly, I’m not sure what I think about it. I haven’t used it. Here’s the story: I had just landed a project with a client whose business I wanted for many reasons: They accepted my going rate, I’d gain new skills, and I wanted to leave another client that paid well but was difficult to deal with. My only concern was that perhaps I had underbid the job—my new client told me that they had chosen me over another contractor in part because the other person had quoted astronomically high rates.

I shared my doubts with a fellow independent and friend with whom I often consult and swap stories. Well, my friend didn’t think I’d underbid. Instead, he suggested that perhaps the other contractor hadn’t really wanted the job.

He told me about a contractor he’d worked with in his days as a salaried employee at a large company that used a lot of contractors. While many of the contractors were obviously unhappy about working there, this more seasoned contractor was always laid-back and content. So my friend asked him his secret. Turns out, when this guy bid on the job, he knew about this company’s reputation for corporate brutality. So he quoted them an astronomically high rate, assuming that he would either:
  • Price himself out of the client’s range and thus not have to deal with a demanding client, or
  • Get the project anyway and laugh all the way to the bank.

He did the latter. However, is this really the way you want to do business? Besides, it might cost you clients down the road if word gets out that you charge sky-high rates.

If nothing else, this story can serve as a warning flag: If you think your pricing is in line with the market but your client is suggesting that everyone is bidding much higher than you, watch out—maybe the other folks know something about this client that you don’t.

Meredith Little has worn many hats as a self-employed writer, including technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.

Do you turn down work often? What’s the tactful way to do it without blowing your shot at future business? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you have a suggestion for an article, send us a note.
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